Terence O'Rourke/Part 1/Chapter 18

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CHAPTER XVIII

HE FINDS HIMSELF IN DEEP WATERS

He had been lying motionless, deep down in the silent depths of an ocean of recuperative unconsciousness; complete inertia had been numbing his every faculty; he had slept the sleep that follows a prolonged struggle with death—slumbers which should have lasted for hours.

Yet to him the crack of that first Mauser had been like the crack of a whiplash to a drowsy horse. The second report had not sounded ere he was on his feet—reeling, it is true, but nevertheless standing. Automatically the man's hand went across his eyes, to brush away the cobwebs of slumber. Mechanically he looked about him, but saw nothing; he was not thinking: a single idea possessed him to the exclusion of all else. His exhausted vitality rallied to his support in the work he had to do; but his weary brain had strength to comprehend but one thing. He did not understand that he was in Madame la Princesse's marquee, so he did not wonder at the manner of his coming there. He did not know that he was too weak to move about alone, so he did not hesitate to exert himself.

Simply that he was called upon to help repulse an attack by the Tawareks—that was his whole and only thought.

It naturally followed that there was naught to be done but to obey the duty call; and he responded, if mechanically.

In an instant he was outside the marquee, staggering toward the nearest edge of the oasis. Somewhere he blundered into the figure of a man who clapped his arms about O'Rourke. This was Mahmud, but O'Rourke did not know it. He was being hindered—that was all. And he threw the Turco from him as though he had been a mere child.

The Turco glimpsed the outlines of his face in the darkness, and gasped with astonishment. Again he caught the Irishman by the arm.

"But, my general—!" he expostulated.

He was brushed aside like a feather. O'Rourke took a step forward, then instinctively understood that he was unarmed. He returned to Mahmud.

"Bring me a gun," he said dully.

"But, my general—"

"Bring me a gun!"

His tone was lifeless, yet charged with something terribly menacing, to the Turco's imagination. Mahmud gasped and trembled; this being whom he had thought man must be either god or devil; otherwise he could not have moved from his cot.

Mahmud called upon Allah. O'Rourke raised his hand slowly.

"Bring me a gun! "he reiterated, in the same dead monotone.

A soldier passed on the run, carrying his Mauser at the trail. Mahmud leaped after and wrested the weapon from him. The man was naturally angry; he disputed at the top of his voice.

Mahmud pointed simply at the waiting figure of O'Rourke, whose eyes were fixed upon them with a stony, threatening expression. The soldier almost collapsed.

"Allah!" he cried.

"Find another rifle," whispered the awed Mahmud, "and follow him. He is more than man. There will be fighting now."

Mahmud's eyes glittered strangely; he scented the supernatural, and divined that there would be battle and bloodshed, indeed, where this god—or demon unchained—would fight.

He left the gaping soldier and stuck close to the heels of O'Rourke. Presently he broke into a dog trot, the better to keep up with his general. In a moment an idea presented itself, seeming good to Mahmud. It would be well to propitiate this being. "Here, master," he muttered reverently, pressing his revolver into the hand of the Irishman.

O'Rourke accepted without a word and hastened on. They were nearing the edge of the oasis. In front of them a French ex-artilleryman lay prone upon the ground, behind a little hill of sand he had heaped up for himself, and fired out into the vibrating dusk. The flashes of his shots were keen crimson and gold in the half light.

At his shoulder O'Rourke stopped, peering out over the face of the desert. Afar he saw a tongue of flame leap out; the report followed, with the whine of a bullet clipping along very near to them.

O'Rourke swung the Mauser to his cheek and pulled the trigger, aiming for the spot where the flash had been. Perhaps the Tawarek took the hint and moved on; but for some time there were no more shots from behind that sandhill. O'Rourke turned to the ex-artilleryman.

"Ye are overbold, mon ami," he said, with a flicker of a smile. "I advise that ye retreat to the shelter of the trees."

The Frenchman recognized the leader, swore with amazement, and obeyed hastily. Mahmud followed O'Rourke. "Together the two made a circuit of the picket line, warning the men to fall back and screen themselves with the trunks of date palms. In every case the trooper obeyed with a celerity that was heightened by his supreme surprise that a man who should be dead by rights was contrarily walking, talking and commanding.

Mahmud once ventured an explanation.

"I posted these men out here, master," he murmured deferentially, "that they might the better watch the desert."

"Ye did right, under the circumstances; but now the situation is altered. We must protect every man—we shall need them all."

"Truly," muttered Mahmud to himself, "this is prophecy! Truly we shall see great fighting before nightfall."

Inspired or not, O'Rourke was speaking simple truth; they were to need every man ere long. Their little force had been sadly decimated of late; there remained in and about the oasis scarcely thirty fighting men. And as to the number of Tawareks—who could tell? They might easily outnumber the invaders ten to one, each inspired by rabid ferocity and the desire to avenge the death of the leader whom O'Rourke had slain.

Why they had held off so long, was the question. To Mahmud's mind there was only one answer; they had been awaiting reinforcements from an oasis more distant than Zamara, with whose aid they expected to exterminate the French party to the last man.

Under cover of the night, too, they had improved their position; as was evidenced by the nearer line of fire, they had pushed daringly in toward the oasis, taking up sheltered, posts on dunes that brought them within easy range of the invaders.

In event of a combined attack from any one quarter, the foreigners were doomed; O'Rourke dared not draw off a single man from a single picket to help repel the Tawareks. And had he been able to do so, as he justly considered, what were thirty men against three hundred or more? They would be mowed down like grain before a scythe, were they not crushed by sheer superior force of numbers.

Indeed, he recognized the situation as sufficiently desperate to call for heroic measures; what such measures were to be he could not determine.

He ordered Mahmud, peremptorily, to pick out the tallest palm tree in the grove, and to climb it to the top, whence he would be able to command a wide view of the surrounding desert; the better to survey which O'Rourke told the man to fetch the fieldglasses from his tent.

Mahmud complied with all haste; while he was away, O'Rourke again made the rounds of the pickets, finding two dead.

And the fire of the Tawareks was being kept up with fiendish persistency. Once or twice he fancied that they were steadily drawing closer in upon the oasis, undaunted by the equally persistent and probably more effective rifle practice of his own men.

By now, the brain of the Irishman was clearing; some store of reserve force within the man had been tapped; an unsuspected supply of nervous energy was urging him on. He stood erect, without tremor; he thought quickly and to the point, finding no difficulty in commanding his mental powers; he spoke steadily and sharply, issuing his orders with his accustomed élan.

Small wonder, then, that Mahmud reverenced and feared him as a war deity—whether celestially or infernally inspired. Small wonder that the men sprang with alacrity to execute his commands; and small wonder that Madame la Princesse, when at last she found him standing absorbed and intent by the side of a sharpshooter, forbore to interfere.

She could not understand, but she knew that now expostulation would prove as vain as it would have been on the previous day when he had prepared to start upon his marvelous race.

Almost timidly she crept to his side, and tentatively she touched his sleeve; and abstracted as the man was, he knew the featherweight of her fingers on his arm and found time to revel in the thrill of it. Nevertheless, it was with a countenance informed with concern that he turned to greet her. For they stood directly exposed to the fire of the Tawareks.

"Madame!" he cried. "Why, this is madness! Ye should be—back there"—indicating the center of the camp.

"As well one place as another, monsieur," she said, as brightly as she might. "There is no security here. Only a moment ago"—her expression saddened—"Monsieur d'Ervy was struck down in his tent by a stray bullet."

"Struck?" he demanded. "Where? Killed?"

She nodded affirmatively.

Mahmud approached to report, saluting.

"Well?" inquired O'Rourke impatiently.

"The desert is alive with Tawareks, master."

"Yes, yes; I knew that. Where are they concentrating?"

"To the north and the east, monsieur. To the west—along the way to the coast—they are very few."

O'Rourke nodded. "So I thought. Listen—"

Madame could hear, above the din of firing, an endless series of the peculiar wailing calls which she had come to know so well as essentially characteristic of the Tawareks.

"They have been signaling to one another for half an hour," explained O'Rourke. "I inferred that they were massing for a direct attack at some one point. It is to come from the west then, d'ye think, Mahmud?"

"Yes, master."

"Very well; we will disappoint them for a little while, madame."

"How?"

"By leaving the oasis."

"But that is certain death."

"Not so certain as though we concluded to stay here and die like rats in a trap, one by one picked off by their fire or crushed out by an overwhelming charge. No, madame; their object is to force us to the coast,—to sweep us into the sea. And we had best precede them. Out there," he went on, "we can stand them off better than here, as we did once before. And there is always the hope that the Eirene may have returned."

"At least, that is our only hope, monsieur," she corrected, smiling bravely.

"Yes, madame," he conceded with gravity. "Mahmud,"—his tone changed to one of command,—"concentrate all the men at a point opposite the way to the sea—all, that is, except a dozen or less who shall scatter here, on the east, and keep up a fire till the last moment, for appearances' sake. Be quick!"

But already the Turco was gone.

"Madame," asserted O'Rourke, turning to the woman, "ye are brave?"

"I do not fear death, monsieur."

"And—and ye will obey?"

She looked steadfastly and deep into the eyes of him.

"In all things, monsieur," she said softly, "and forever."

"Madame!" He was dazed by her manner; he could not credit the evidence of his senses as to the tenderness of her tone, as to the light that glowed in her eyes.

No; he told himself his wish had been father to his thought. He had misunderstood. He looked away.

"Listen," he said rapidly; "this is me plan: At the mouth of the Wadi Saglat, madame, there lies beached one of the catamaran rafts which the Eirene left behind her when she sailed. It will accommodate six at the most. We shall make for that; if we gain it, ye will go aboard with Monsieur l'Empereur and Mouchon. There is a sail,—maybe a breeze."

"But as for you, monsieur?" she demanded.

"I remain with me men to cover your retreat. No—don't dispute. 'Tis the only way."

She bowed her head, apparently yielding; but in her heart she was determined implacably that she would not desert this man who offered so debonnairely to lay down his life for her.

O'Rourke stepped to the western edge of the oasis; from the indications of the Tawarek fire he made little doubt but that practically all of the enemy's forces were massing in the east, as Mahmud had reported. Already his own men were gathering and making ready for the dash to the sea.

The adventurer found himself worried with a vague uneasiness unconnected with the desperate situation that menaced his comrades and the woman he loved. It was not that he was himself frightened, or that he feared death: death was his ultimate portion, a soldier's inevitable fate; he was prepared to accept it uncomplainingly, when it should come. But there seemed to be something awry with the day; its very atmosphere hung motionless, lifeless, indefinitely depressing. It struck him that the heat seemed more sultry even than usual.

He strove to shake off this oppressive influence; for a little while he was very busy, his mind distracted with the business of training in a position to repel the expected attack the two gatlings with which the expedition was provided. But when that had been attended to he became again conscious of the ominous foreboding in the air; the day was gravid with portents of terror.

Frowning, he stared out into the east. For a moment he saw nothing amiss; the desert stretched away, as always a sea of sand, desolate, saffron and a-quiver with the oblique rays of the rising sun. Here and there little puff balls of smoke would rise—white clouds no bigger than a man's hand—tremble and dissipate; their appearance followed at an interval by the far, spiteful crack of a native rifle.

Only, he felt as though a copper-colored film had been bound across his eyes; he saw all things as through a tinted glass, yellow. The day seemed to have turned darksome at the dawn. And the silence was almost terrible, more impressive than ever it had been, with a sense of a tangible presence, mute, invisible, threatening. In its profound immensity, the rattle of shots was like the shrill piping of a child's voice in the roar of a hurricane.

But he had no time for conjecture. Mahmud returned to his side, reporting that all was prepared for the sally out to the coast. O'Rourke nodded sternly in his preoccupation.

"Rejoin the party immediately," he ordered. "Place Madame la Princesse and Monsieur l'Empereur in the middle of the square. Then await my coming with these others."

To the south and north the firing of the natives had dwindled out and died completely. Such, too, was the case in the west; where it was hardly noticeable. Only in the east it seemed redoubled, concentrated, fiendishly accurate. On the borders of the oasis the troopers lay at length, hugging the stocks of their Mausers to their lean cheeks, firing doggedly, waiting. They had their instructions as to action in the apprehended event, and were impatient.

Presently, and with startling abruptness, the fire of the Tawareks ceased entirely; beyond the nearest rises of the desert a dead and ominous silence reigned, unbroken.

The jaundiced light of day became more intense, seeming to grow imperceptibly more opaque. In the east a white feather of cloud hung trembling on the horizon.

"Cease firing!"

At O'Rourke's command the troopers obeyed. "Reload!" he told them, and: "Fall back to the guns!" They did so in silence, casting sullen glances over their shoulders at the vast, vacant, terrible desert.

O'Rourke himself reloaded his Mauser, looking to his revolvers, and followed them to the gatlings.

A single shot rang out in the stillness, with the effect of a tocsin heralding a massacre.

In another instant the enemy was in sight, advancing upon the oasis in battle array, afoot and on camelback, at a quick trot, their white burnooses napping out behind them, wing-like, glistening in the sun. They seemed well-generaled; not a cry rang out, not a man paused to kneel and fire; they came on steadily and silently, implacably determined, as if assured of their absolute irresistibility—a gorgeous array in their many-hued garments, with the sunlight glinting off their arms and the trappings of their camels: a sight to strike terror into hearts less veteran than those of O'Rourke and his men.

Turning, the Irishman sent his voice booming across the oasis, to the other party.

"Forward!" he cried.

In reply, Mahmud's echo told him that his word was heard.

And now the Tawareks were very near, coming on swiftly. They were not dreaming of the rapid-fire guns, which as yet had not been made use of for lack of a target sufficiently important.

O'Rourke waited; his heart hot within him, determined to even somewhat his long score with the men of the desert. He waited—while the men tugged impatiently at his leash. Then—

"Fire!"

With one accord the gatlings began to chatter shrilly; they had been accurately trained upon the advancing host; the pelting rain of leaden death swept along their line, mowing it down mercilessly. The Tawareks shrieked rage and dismay, calling upon Allah; they tried to return the fire promiscuously from their rifles.

And the gatlings jabbered on. But the Tawareks were in overwhelming force and invincible. Their enormous losses were disregarded; the huge, terrible swaths in their line were refilled eagerly by others, keen for death and the heavenly houris who attend upon the souls of those of the true faith who fall in battle.

When they were too near, and then only, O'Rourke gave up the fight. He issued the order to abandon the gatlings, which were simultaneously effectually dismantled; the dozen men gathered up their Mausers and swung in at his heels.

For a moment or two there had been firing to the west. This now was silenced. O'Rourke and his command emerged from the shade of the date palms to see the last man of the leading party slinking over the top of a sandhill, his rifle at trail. It was Mahmud, who turned, waved a hand and waited.

A short, quick dash under the broiling sun brought O'Rourke to his side.

"Here there were only six or eight, master," reported Mahmud. "We put to flight such as we did not slay."

"Good," breathed O'Rourke. "And now for it!"

He tightened his belt and gave the command for the double-quick; the forward party heard and mended their pace. In the rear the Tawareks were just bursting through the oasis, howling.

Despite the fact that the foreigners had the start, the Tawareks gained. Halfway to the sea O'Rourke was forced to pause and deploy his men to the right and left, to check the advance; it succeeded momentarily, but as he stood upon a dune top and surveyed the thin fringe of prone figures that were firing, rising, retreating swiftly, and dropping to fire again, his heart sank within him; not twenty men remained of them all.

And fully two miles were yet to be put behind them ere they gained the sea.

Very soberly they fought the distance out, selling each yard dearly, getting their pound of Tawarek flesh for each foot of the ground they yielded; but it was the fighting of men fore-damned, viciously determined to sell their lives to the highest bidder only.

They got their price—but also they paid it. While still a mile from the shore, but ten men remained to O'Rourke; and as he counted them two dropped out—one slain outright with a bullet through his head, another, knowing himself mortally wounded, slipping a shoe from one foot, and with his toe upon the trigger of his rifle forestalling a lingering death by Tawarek torture.

It was useless; O'Rourke glanced behind him, to the coast. Madame, Lemercier, Mouchon were vanished. They might now make a dash for the sea, he considered, and his voice rang with the command.

The men obeyed hastily, but the Tawareks were now so near, their fire so deadly, that four were slain as they rose to join their commander; and now another went down; three only closed with O'Rourke for the run to the sea. They hugged their rifles jealously, setting their jaws with fixed determination to make the coast. The sun's heat beat upon their defenseless heads with sardonic intensity; below their feet the sands broiled and reeled. They ran on, staggering, for many minutes that seemed like hours.

Presently, and to the astonishment of all, they gained the coast; presently they stood upon the highest sandhill, pausing to look back ere throwing themselves down to the sea. O'Rourke saw the little catamaran raft lying half afloat; madame sat upon it, a revolver in her hand; on the beach Lemercier and the craven Mouchon sulked, eying the woman doggedly.

He guessed the situation—that the two had tried to push off and leave him and his men to their fate, but that madame had nullified their selfish purpose with her weapon and her own dauntless loyalty.

But there was no space for consideration of that; it was enough that Lemercier and Mouchon had failed in their design. Another thing interested O'Rourke far more: the Tawareks had given up the pursuit.

Why?

His three remaining troopers had flung down the shelving hillside to the beach, but O'Rourke lingered, shading his eyes and gazing inland.

In the east and south the horizon had vanished. To the zenith the firmament was discolored, shading from a dense and impenetrable black near the horizon to a thin and translucent copper hue overhead, where the sun hung like a pallid disk; and abruptly that was blotted out.

Out of the heart of the desert there came a long, shrill wail of fear from the Tawareks; and close upon that sound a sighing moan swept shuddering through all the worlds A puff of foul, hot wind, like the breath of a smelting furnace, smote the cheek of the Irishman; it was as if he had been touched by flame.

A swirl of air formed afar on the desert; and another, and another—brown wraiths of dust, whirling like mad dervishes, sweeping seawards with the speed of locomotives. Behind them loomed what seemed a wall of night, solid, invincible, annihilating all that stood in its path. It swept westwards, wrapped in thunderings, devouring the earth. El Kebr, that oasis which was sometime the site of Troya, the Magnificent-to-be, vanished, was blotted out as by the hand of God.

The sandstorm advanced with incredible rapidity; O'Rourke, suddenly conscious that he was delaying escape, imperiling the lives of his comrades, by thus lingering, withdrew his fascinated gaze and prepared to descend to the waiting catamaran. And at once he became aware that he stood not alone; a man's figure loomed beside his own. He stared, and, despite the gathering gloom, discovered, the features of le petit Lemercier,—the face of Leopold le Premier, l'Empereur du Sahara.

The little man was quivering with fright, yet shaken with a more overpowering emotion. Despair was furrowed deep in his flabby, pallid cheeks; and tears traced tiny rivulets through the dust and grime with which his countenance was soiled. He stood with drooping head, his arms slack at his sides, staring with lifeless and lack-luster eyes at the demolition of his empire of illusion.

Suddenly he fell upon his knees, stretching forth suppliant arms towards the lost oasis.

O'Rourke stooped and bent an ear to the man's lips. He caught the echo of an exceeding bitter cry:

"My empire!"

And the heart of O'Rourke was moved to pity, for he now knew that this little Frenchman had actually believed in himself and his mad scheme.

O'Rourke caught the man by the arm and lifted him to his feet without ceremony. And yet solemnly, almost sadly, he said:

"An end to empire, Monsieur l'Empereur!"

A vedette of wind from the storm that was now perilously near struck them both, hurling them from the head of the dune. They floundered a moment on the beach, then managed to creep aboard the raft.

A soldier shoved them off, and himself clambered aboard. A shred of sail was set, the gale caught upon it and the catamaran was hurled seawards.


Immediately O'Rourke crumpled into unconsciousness; the moment the strain of responsibility was lifted from his shoulders, the moment they were in the care of Providence, the Irishman yielded to the demands of an overstrained constitution.

Hours passed blankly. When he awakened, it was to find the face of the woman that he loved bending over him—bent maddeningly near to his own countenance, so that he might feel the caress of her breath upon his cheek, might catch the elusive perfume of her hair.

"Where are we?" he asked.

A splash of saline spray wetted his face, by way of an answer; he turned his head away for an instant and glanced about them: the catamaran tossed wildly on the bosom of a wind-scourged sea. But at once his gaze went back to the woman. After a while she bent her head more near, smiling with divine tenderness, and kissed him upon the lips—there before her brother, in the sight of Mouchon and the three troopers.

"The Eirene is sighted," she murmured. "We are saved—dear heart."

He sighed, resting his head in the hollow of her arm—her arm that had served as its pillow for weary hours.

"'Tis a dream," he told her. "A dream, and I'll believe no word of it, sweetheart. … But, my faith, 'tis a heavenly sweet dream!"